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Lost in the Mazeway to Success

By Megan Fuller

Remember that show that was on a couple years ago, LOST? Many of us are probably thinking of it because, at the time of this writing, the Malaysian airliner has disappeared with no trace. Hopefully, by the time the April issue is out in print, that mystery will be solved. In the show, not only were the people on the plane physically lost, they lost their society. The passengers that crashed on the LOST island were from many different cultures, with different backgrounds, and a variety of skillsets – most of which weren’t particularly useful on a deserted island. In other words, their skills no longer had value and the knowledge they had on how to be successful were no longer relevant. Of course, this was not true for every single survivor; the doctor, the fisherman, and the hunter’s skills retained value, but the majority of the passengers were left dumbfounded as to what next steps they should take. Their path to success, which is generally defined by one’s culture, was destroyed and in order to survive a new path had to be forged.

Although LOST did entertain me (okay, mesmerize me) for 121 episodes, it is not the first time I’d been exposed to such a plot. In fact, we all have been–multiple times, perhaps in real life, or history class, or political science. One doesn’t have to be lost on a deserted island to have one’s skills lose value and path to success destroyed. Take for example, the European invasion of the Americas. As the Anglos moved to the New World they forced the indigenous off their lands and onto reservations. Just as in LOST, these actions made the indigenous’ traditional skills valueless and path of success null.

Way back in 1956, an anthropologist named AFC Wallace published an article describing a phenomena he called “revitalization movements.” Wallace was studying the literature about Handsome Lake, a Seneca prophet among 19th century Iroquois. The Iroquois had been forced on to reservations and were not allowed to pursue their traditional activities and were engaging in self-destructive behavior. Handsome Lake had a vision of a new way of life for his people, in which they could again be successful. He spread the word and, as his ideas took hold, the self-destructive behaviors lessened. He gave his people a new understanding of how to live a successful life within their new confines.

Wallace noticed the process through which this transformation occurred and began to look at other culture change movements. He discovered that these movements all followed the same process, which he then outlined. Some stress on the culture was the catalyst for each revitalization movement. The stress would cause some significant part of the population to no longer be able to achieve success with their traditional “mazeway,” a term Wallace used. I define it as: everything that we know about how to successfully live our lives within our culture.

The structure of the revitalization process, in cases where the full course is run, consists of five somewhat overlapping stages: 1. Steady State; 2. Period of Individual Stress; 3.Period of Cultural Distortion; 4. Period of Revitalization (in which occur the functions of mazeway reformulation, communication, organization, adaptation, cultural transformation, and routinization), and finally, 5. New Steady State. 

There will probably never be a time when 100% of a population is successful, but during the Steady State stage the majority of the population is able to use their knowledge and skills to successfully create a happy life. During the Period of Individual Stress an increased number of people may experience poverty, poor health or other stresses for which usual coping techniques are not working. Still the majority of the population, although a smaller majority, is able to get by based on the traditional ways. In the Period of Cultural Distortion the stress has reached a larger part of the population and so there may be an increase in alcoholism, suicide, violence, crime, corruption or other self-destructive behaviors by individuals who feel stranded in their own environment. As these self-destructive behaviors increase, the stress on the society also rises — and less and less people care about following the rules of society because the rules no longer have any benefit for them. Without some intervention the society might collapse.

The saving measure is the Period of Revitalization within which the mazeway is reformulated. Usually a leader will emerge from the stressed group and articulate a new way of thinking and acting which will allow the society to be successful once again. Examples of such a leader are Jesus, Joseph Smith, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Hitler. I threw in Hitler here to show that revitalization  movements aren’t always “good” and luckily, don’t always succeed. For the revitalization movement to be successful, the new mazeway has to be accepted as legitimate by the surrounding community. In the case of Nazism the global community rejected the new way of thinking as being an acceptable mazeway and had to kick butt to ensure the movement did not take hold. If the new mazeway is seen as a legitimate way of life by the folks on the inside and outside of the movement, a New Steady State will be reached.

News watchers may now be thinking about how many places there is evidence of the Period of Cultural Distortion: Venezuela, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Chechnya, Mexico, Egypt and everywhere the Arab Spring took hold, come to mind just off the top of my head. What about here in the good old USA? What stage are we in? Are Americans succeeding using our traditional mazeway of the American Dream? Hard work and education lead to a good job, the ability to own a home and car(s), and to generally be more successful than your parents. This was my understanding of how to achieve success in America as I was growing up. Does the great majority of the population feel that this model has worked for them or will work for their children or grandchildren? I haven’t done a poll, but anecdotes of lack of success, the way the country is so divided politically, and movements like Occupy Wall Street make me think the answer is no.

If there is still a majority for whom the aforementioned American Dream works it is a small majority, which leaves a large minority of Americans in need of a new mazeway. I know many people who cannot make ends meet with a single job, and so they paste together a living doing multiple jobs – some of which they may enjoy, others not so much. Many folks don’t feel like the jobs they do have are secure, having been through the Great Recession and seeing all the downsizing and restructuring in the work place. People with college degrees, even with graduate degrees, are working for small sums because that is all they can find. So many people lost their homes in the past few years and are not able to or not confident enough in their current situation to buy again. The house next door to me has been sitting empty since 2011: our neighbor gave it up because he wasn’t able to afford it after getting laid off. He found a another job, but at just half the salary. It seems as if the USA is also in a Period of Cultural Distortion as well, happily without the widespread violence in some of the other countries mentioned previously. I am eagerly waiting and watching for the introduction of a new mazeway.



Are We A Culture of Bullies?

By Megan Fuller

Incidents of bullying are in the news fairly regularly and many, maybe most, schools are instituting anti-bullying programs. I asked some middle school students if they had anything to say about bullying. This small prompt initiated stories of one incident after another.  I was told that of the children who are bullied, many are bullied almost constantly throughout the school day; before and after school, in the hallway between classes, and during lunch. Just listening to these stories made me feel beaten down and depressed. As a society we certainly do not condone the tragic results of bullying; a young girl jumping in front of a train, young men bringing guns to school to kill their nemesis.   If we don’t condone the results, it stands to reason that we should not condone the behavior.

Stopbullying.gov defines bullying as:

[U]nwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems. 

In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

  • An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

If bullying is unacceptable behavior within our culture, and by this definition it is, why is it so prevalent?

Anthropologists have studied bullying in a variety of ways; origins, cross-culturally, typology, in the media or online. Each tactic reveals different information about bullying, adds to our knowledge base, and has practical applications. Scientifically, it is important to look at bullying from as many angles and from as many disciplines as possible so that policy makers have a solid base of research from which to draw and aren’t just left making capricious decisions based on nothing.

Hogan Sherrow, Professor of Anthropology at Ohio University, has a great blog post on ScientificAmerican.com in which he outlines the origins of bullying.  As his reason for doing such research he states, “[w]ithout the deep understanding the origins of a behavior provide, efforts to prevent bullying will continue to fail.” In Sherrow’s research he uses a definition of bullying similar to the one provided above adding that “intimidation is the goal, and bullying can happen in a one-on-one or group basis.” He looks to establish whether bullying is singularly American or if it is found in other cultures. Review of the literature shows that “bullying is ubiquitous across human cultures.” The next question Sherrow seeks to answer is if bullying is unique to humans.  He finds “there is ample evidence that many other animals, including other primates, engage in bullying-like behaviors.” Often within primate society intimidation and aggression are used to enforce group behavior or to establish dominance and ensure reproductive success. Sherrow concludes, “[t]he tendency to bully, or coerce, others is natural and deeply rooted in our evolutionary history…” and that “addressing bullying through culturally based social programs” will not serve to eliminate bullying.  Knowing that bullying is biological rather than cultural we can already answer the titular question.  No, we are not a culture of bullies—we are a species of bullies.

Humans, however, are not just biological beings. An overlay of culture informs our behavior of biological functions from the way we groom ourselves to the way we go to the bathroom. A study, partly funded by the World Health Organization, looked at bullying and its effect on the health of victims across 28 European and North American countries. The authors found “[t]he proportion of students being bullied varied enormously across countries. The lowest prevalence was observed among girls in Sweden (6.3%), the highest among boys in Lithuania (41.4%).” Results such as these indicate that, although we are a species of bullies, culture influences the amount of bullying that goes on and most likely the types of bullying as well.

Professor Burlingame, on atasteof anthropology blog, writes that in the United States “[t]he basic impetus for bullying lies in dealing with difference” and “in gaining power through the subjugation of others.” Because children see intolerance and stratified power relationships in everyday American life, Professor Burlingame points out, they are apt to create the same sorts of relationships in school. Of course, school is only one place where young people congregate—children are also spending plenty of time online using social media and gaming. Relationships in the cyber-community mirror those in the real world, except in the virtual world there is a significant lack of adult supervision. Resident Anthro points out in his blog post “The Culture of Bullying” that in online gaming “[w]hen someone is mocked for low skill, a poor k/d spread, or an ‘inability’ to perform well … they are being bullied.” He goes on with his analysis saying, “[i]t’s the ‘Jones’ effect. When you see someone doing something you want to be a part of it, and when people aren’t encouraging online the only people you hear are those who are bullying… This creates a culture of bullying in online gaming.”

Since the only way to eliminate bullying from the gene pool would be to round up all the bullies and sterilize (or kill) them before they had children—a kind of Big Brotherish solution—we, as a society, need to figure out a cultural way to help ameliorate the problem. Within the articles referenced previously are ideas to help minimize the impacts of bullying.  The authors of the cross-cultural study suggest that, “[t]he most important tool for diminishing bullying is addressing the school environment. It is recommended that the problem be highlighted for teachers and pupils by special work sessions, and that it be made harder to actually perform the behavior by increasing inspection in breaks and at other occasions, when bullying is likely to occur.” They also suggest letting the children define what is socially acceptable for the group. Professor Burlingame also endorses classroom intervention. She points out that “[d]ifference doesn’t have to be seen as threatening on any level” and that “reinforcing that no one way is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for everyone can be done at every grade level” and in all classroom subjects. “The goal of this kind of lesson is to support diversity while maintaining respect for, and pride in, one’s own cultural traditions and practices.” Lessons in diversity can teach both acceptance and empathy—giving students the ability to see the world from other people’s perspective. In an online gaming atmosphere, Resident Anthro feels the best option to deal with bullying is to, “put down my controller and turn my system off.” He reminds gamers to “check ourselves at the controller and remember that, just because you’re anonymous doesn’t mean that your actions are meaningless.”

Just this brief review of the literature available online has certainly added to my personal knowledge base regarding bullying but it also leaves me with further questions. Even though aggression is no longer necessary to find the best mate, does bullying still have a function? How does bullying correlate to behaviors in adulthood? How does bullying correlate to other biologically based behaviors? Answers to these questions may already exist in the literature as the research I’ve  done is far from exhaustive. I am certainly interested in hearing from readers regarding any research of which they are aware and how it compares or contrasts with what has been presented here. My hope is that this is just the beginning of a conversation.

Meaningful Metaphorical Messages

By Megan Fuller

As a new employee at the non-profit where I am now working, I had the opportunity to meet with many of the staff in different departments to get to know agency dynamics. The mission of this agency is to match mentors with youth facing adversity. While speaking to the gentleman in charge of recruiting mentors, he mentioned that there is a shortage of male volunteers and the agency has a list of boys waiting for a match.  He said this problem exists everywhere-this dearth of male mentors. I asked him why he thought that was and what does he do to try and encourage more men to sign up. He explained that sometimes the men are concerned that they will be looked at as a parent rather than a mentor. To combat this fear, the recruiter talks to them about being a coach. Coaches are trusted adults that help kids in more limited and specific areas rather than the all-encompassing responsibility of being a parent. It’s not scary to be a coach, coaches get to be fun. This guy is smart, I thought. He knows that changing the metaphor changes the meaning.

The meaning of so many aspects of our culture is revealed through metaphor. Sure metaphor is a fun literary technique but it is actually critical to our intracultural communication. Our expectations and understanding of behavior in ourselves and others are based on a shared conceptual system which is revealed through metaphor.  Linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson write in their book Metaphors We Live By, “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (p. 5).

One of my favorite metaphors that Lakoff and Johnson discuss as being integral to this American life is TIME IS MONEY. Have you ever noticed that we talk about time and money in the same way? At work I earn time off as well as my pay. We can waste time or save time, spend time or give time, make time, run out of time, budget time, or live on borrowed time. Clearly, we think about time as a limited resource. It seems to be precious and should be properly managed. Isn’t it funny how we think of one person having more time than another, when everyone gets the same 24 hours in a day?

Another common but maybe less obvious metaphor we use is IDEAS ARE FOOD. Food for thought, isn’t it? You might devour a book, sink your teeth into something or put it on the back burner. Let that guy stew in his own juice for a while. Maybe the raw facts will help improve that half-baked idea. Our understanding of ideas doesn’t stop at food though. Ideas are also human-they can spawn or die out; they can be resurrected. Ideas are also referred to as plants (budding concept, fertile imagination), products (generated or re-fined), commodities (worthless), resources (running low on), money (my two cents), fashions (out of style), and cutting instruments (ripped it to shreds).

Remember Pat Benetar singing that Love is a Battlefield? LOVE IS WAR, but it is also magic (she cast a spell on me) and a physical force (I was drawn to him). It could also be a patient in a sick relationship or cause madness as in Madonna’s Crazy for You. Love, like an idea, can be a plant that blooms and grows, or grows apart, or withers and dies. Love can be many things and we can share our experiences or ideas because of metaphor.

So let me just wrap up this homage to metaphor and tie up any loose ends by saying that METAPHOR IS A GIFT. We can package our emotions and experiences to communicate with others. Metaphors offer us the facility to empathize and sympathize, to teach and to learn, to create and to understand. They provide deeper meaning within our everyday lives.

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